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River Severn Flooding

Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2020

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the flooding of the River Severn.

I am grateful to have been called to speak in this debate on the recent flooding of the River Severn. I am sure that Members are aware of how badly Shrewsbury has been affected as a result of that flooding. The part of Shrewsbury where I live, Coton Hill, was badly affected, with terrible damage and flooding in my neighbourhood. However, over the past few days and weeks I have spent quite a bit of time in another bit of Shrewsbury, Coleham, which has also been badly affected by these floods. I will refer to a couple of people whose situations I am very conscious of, some of whom I have met: Lee and Sandra from The Hair Forum, Rachel from The Glam Studio, and G. O. Elson, who is in his 50th year as a local butcher. Seeing the devastation that has happened in those people’s neighbourhoods and the financial damage caused to their businesses has been galling.

Yesterday, I met with Peter Nutting, the leader of Shropshire Council, when he came to the House of Commons. He informed me that over 300 businesses and residential properties had been affected just in Shrewsbury, and estimated that the cost of clearing up from the ramifications of this flood will be over £1 million in my constituency alone. Of course, the Bellwin scheme will help, but a large chunk of money will not come from that scheme; Shropshire Council is having to find that money itself. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) will attest, our local council is grappling at the moment with the massive, spiralling costs of adult social care, and is running a deficit and struggling to make ends meet as it is. Those additional costs will be very problematic for it.

Local residents have stressed that action is needed, as problems with insurance and future floods will finish off many independent traders. I spoke to one bed and breakfast hotel owner who lost £30,000 over the course of these events. He was near tears as he showed me the devastation to his hotel. As is typical for businesses, his hotel will not only suffer during the floods, but for days and weeks afterwards. The media are very good at highlighting that Shrewsbury has flooded and very good at showing pictures of a flooded Shrewsbury, but not so good at subsequently informing citizens around the United Kingdom that those floods have been alleviated. Whether a business is a local pub, a local hotel or whatever else, its books will be significantly down, not just over the course of the floods but in the following days and weeks.

Seeing the devastation and listening to the heartbreaking stories has hastened my resolve to get action for these hard-working entrepreneurs. That is why on Wednesday 26 February, I was here in the House of Commons rather than in my constituency with my electorate, because I wanted to challenge the Prime Minister at Question Time, to share with him what was going on in Shrewsbury, and to try to secure some sort of commitment from him. If she checks Hansard, the Minister will see that in response to my question, the Prime Minister assured me on the Floor of the House that whatever work the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency do together to alleviate the problems on the River Severn, and whatever solution they come up with, he will ensure that the Government support that solution. I am going to hold the Government to account on this issue and make sure that the Prime Minister fulfils the commitment that he made to me.

I am obviously delighted that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced a massive additional allocation of taxpayers’ money for flood alleviation schemes in this afternoon’s Budget. With that in mind, we are going to ensure, hopefully collectively—I am pleased that other right hon. and hon. Friends from constituencies along the River Severn are also present—that we fight for our share of those additional resources to make sure a holistic solution is found for the Severn.

Last week I asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to visit Shrewsbury, and I am grateful that he took the time to visit my town. He met flood victims and also came to Shirehall, the council building in Shrewsbury, to meet with local councillors including Peter Nutting, as well as with council officials including Mark Barrow and others, who are in the audience today. He received a presentation on a topic I hope to address later: the River Severn partnership, which is a holistic, collective approach of communities and organisations up and down the River Severn, working together to come up with a credible solution for managing that river. We will then want the Government to support that solution.

I commend my hon. Friend on having secured this debate, and have absolutely no doubts that he will hold the Government to account. He has already alluded to some heart-wrenching stories, but does he agree that there have also been some very positive stories, and that we should pay tribute to local authority workers, Shropshire Council, Telford and Wrekin Council, the Environment Agency and the emergency services? All those groups have done a huge service to the people of Shropshire.

I could not agree more, and I am sure that all of my right hon. and hon. Friends from Shropshire will join him in paying tribute to those people.

The River Severn partnership is a strategic coalition of 18 organisations, including local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, water companies and the Environment Agency. It has an agreed memorandum of understanding aimed at working collaboratively to develop a comprehensive long-term approach to management of the River Severn. Here, we have an established group of all the relevant and appropriate bodies, working together on an innovative and forward-looking holistic solution that could literally be a game-changing approach to flood management.

My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on having secured this debate at this timely moment, and it is good to see fellow Members from further down the river present. “Holistic” means the catchment area. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should look at the whole catchment area? The River Vyrnwy runs into the Severn in my patch, and this afternoon Melverley is flooded, protecting Shrewsbury. We need to look at holding water much further back in Wales, possibly paying landowners to hold water back, building new reservoirs and giving farmers the right to catch water. As Mr Bryan Edwards, head of the Melverley internal drainage board, has said, we want to slow it up at the top, hold more back and plant more trees—exactly as the Government are proposing to do—but when that water gets into the river, we want to speed it on down.

We should remember that the river used to be navigable and took a lot more water. We had a meeting in Shrewsbury a few years ago, looking at getting more out of the river, having more capacity, opening up the weirs and locks and generally making more of it, but also getting more water away. Once the water is in the river, we want to get it away, as Members from further down the Severn know. We need to look at a catchment area solution that goes right back to the hills and includes both the Vyrnwy and the Severn.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. That is the flavour of what we are trying to get across to the Minister. Of course, individual flood schemes can help—we have one in Shrewsbury that protects Frankwell, the town council and the area around it—but in reality, although those small schemes protect parts of Shrewsbury, they just push the problem further down the line, which affects my right hon. and hon. Friends down the river.

By the way, the River Severn is the longest river in the United Kingdom at 220 miles. That accolade certainly means that the Government need to look at the river in its entirety and come up with a solution to manage its flow across all our constituencies.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, today of all days, when the Chancellor has just announced a doubling of flood defence expenditure over the next six years to £5.2 billion. He will have noticed that the Chancellor provided an additional £120 million to repair the flood defences already in place, which may help the constituencies of hon. Members whose flood defences were damaged in Ironbridge and Bewdley along the River Severn.

Most importantly, the Chancellor announced a £200-million contribution to place-based resilience schemes for local communities, in which the Severn valley catchment has an important part to play. I understand that £23 million of that £200 million is being allocated to the Severn valley to look at that catchment-wide solution. Areas such as Bridgnorth in my constituency, where water was pushed downstream from Shrewsbury and Ironbridge, and the river burst its banks, need some flood defences to prevent that happening again.

Order. This is an important subject, but if interventions could be slightly snappier, I would be grateful.

I always give a little extra to my right hon. Friend and neighbour, a fellow Salopian. I ask the Government to support, politically and economically, the development of a River Severn strategy, similar to that already in place for the Humber estuary and River Thames, with a remit to look at water management, flood risk, sustainable growth and climate resilience.

The River Severn partnership—this is the key point that I want to get across to the Minister and that should be underlined with her officials—now needs significant resources to commit to the detailed planning phases and studies required to progress to the design phase. I look forward to working with the Minister on how that can be funded and delivered, which is important because of the Prime Minister’s commitment to me on the Floor of the House that the Government will support whatever credible solution Shropshire Council, with the Environment Agency and collectively through the River Severn partnership, comes up with. My understanding is that the partnership is at the point where it needs those additional resources to conclude its studies and come up with the holistic approach that we are all determined to secure for our constituencies.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He talks about the holistic approach of the Environment Agency and other partnerships down the River Severn. Does he think that there should be a coalition of Members of Parliament who serve constituencies on the River Severn, and would he lead that coalition?

That is an awfully generous offer. I take my hon. Friend back 10 or 11 years to my Westminster Hall debate on this issue, in this room. If he looks through the records, he will find that I started to talk about the need to look at the whole of the River Severn as a single unit 11 years ago. Let us not forget that the problem has not just come upon us recently. Shrewsbury has been appallingly flooded many times. The opportunity for the Government is enormous. If they can protect our constituencies from repeated flooding, think about the extra economic productivity they will achieve, how property prices will go up and how businesses will continue to operate and pay their VAT and other taxes.

I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly that all the Members of Parliament through whose constituency the River Severn flows have to work together cross-party. We are predominantly Tories along the River Severn, which is a great thing, but whichever party an MP is from, if they represent a constituency through which the River Severn flows, I would like them to take part in that campaign group. If we join forces as Members of Parliament, go to see the Minister repeatedly and keep raising the issue collectively, something can be done.

Does my hon. Friend share my hope that some of the additional flood defence funding announced today will be used not only for additional storage capacity in the Welsh hills, as proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), but to ensure that there is a piping system, probably provided by Severn Trent Water, to get excess water in the summer through the Severn to the Thames for the parts of south-east England that have a water shortage?

My hon. Friend raises a pivotal issue. The irony is that many parts of our country are badly economically hit because of a lack of water. In this day and age, we ought to be able to devise a system whereby we can properly manage water and ensure that it can be better utilised for areas lacking it while protecting our constituencies.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his proposal and I support it from Worcestershire. Does he accept that it is also important to look at the tributaries of the River Severn, such as the River Teme, which affected Tenbury Wells on this occasion, and the River Avon, which flows into the Severn.

I am very conscious of that and I hope that the Minister will take that point on board in her response.

I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond. I repeat that the River Severn is 220 miles long. It is the longest river in the United Kingdom. The River Severn basin has an area of almost 4,500 square miles that spans the English-Welsh border and runs across the west midlands before entering the sea at the Bristol channel. About 117,000 households, and more than 10,000 businesses, are considered to be within flood zones from the River Severn and its tributaries. The economic impact of the devastation that our businesses have been through is massive. In my constituency alone, there has been more than £1 million of damage and costs.

I am grateful to have had the chance to raise the issue. When I went to see the clear-up in my constituency, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that I saw an extraordinary Dunkirk spirit. People of all ages came together and gave up their time to help their fellow residents and businesses. We had a “buy local” campaign over the weekend in Shrewsbury to encourage people to use the businesses that were adversely affected. The Minister knows how strongly we feel about the issue. The time has come for the Government to act on managing the River Severn.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. He is always vociferous about his constituency, but he has been particularly determined and dogged about flooding. I cannot fault him for bringing this issue to the Government’s attention; I would do the same as a constituency MP. He certainly put the issues in his area on the map.

Like others, including my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), I pay tribute to the Environment Agency, the emergency services, local authorities, Government officials and our local communities and volunteers, who have done such brilliant work during the floods. Such situations really do test people, and the Severn Area Rescue Association should be particularly commended.

I think all right hon. and hon. Members would agree that it has been an unprecedented time. This has been the wettest February on record; it has been absolutely exceptional, and the River Severn catchment area has been hugely affected by Storm Dennis. Between 16 and 18 February the river at Kempsey near Worcester—I went there for a visit, having been first to Bewdley—reached its highest recorded level of 7.49 metres. That is just above the previous record of 7.47 metres.

We have had unparalleled times, and properties along the Severn have been protected by a whole range of permanent and temporary flood defences. Although the situation is dreadful for the homes and businesses that have been flooded, it has to be said at the outset that the defences that have been put in place have protected some 50,000 homes along the river. I know that Gloucester has been particularly affected.

I want to put on record my incredible thanks to the staff of the Environment Agency, the county council and others who put in protective measures after the dreadful floods of 2007, which effectively meant that not a single home in Gloucester flooded this time.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because we must not forget that a great deal of work has been done on flood defences as we have learned lessons from previous events and storms. The defences that have been put in place have protected many more homes and businesses, but there is still a great deal to do. Of course, not all areas are suitable for permanent flood defences. Perhaps one of the most striking examples this winter has been the installation of temporary barriers, particularly in Ironbridge. Although the barriers were pushed back by 2 metres as up to 500 tonnes of water per second flowed through the town, they still did their job.

I am pleased to say that the Severn is slowly receding. However, we must not be complacent, especially as there are continuing risks along the estuary, both today and tomorrow. We will be standing by to take the necessary steps, but recovery is taking place in many areas. It must be remembered that the Government have taken rapid action, chivvied on by our excellent Members who have spoken up for their constituencies.

We launched the Bellwin scheme very quickly. I take right hon. and hon. Members’ points about the scheme, but it has helped a lot of local authorities. On 18 February we launched the flood recovery framework, which triggered a whole series of other grant payments for eligible homes and businesses that have been affected, including the DEFRA property flood resilience scheme, which provides grants of £500 to help households and businesses become more resilient. I saw how that had been very helpfully used in Bewdley. Although it does not help everyone, it has definitely helped a lot of homes. I spoke to a lot of the people in those homes.

Farming is an integral part of life and the economy in our counties right along the River Severn. DEFRA, the Environment Agency and the Rural Payments Agency are working together to determine the full impacts on farmland, with the potential to make announcements about that farm recovery fund later.

Managing flood risks, particularly locally, requires risk management authorities to work together. As we have heard, the Severn is a prime example of partnerships working at their best. The Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, 29 lead local flood authorities, nine internal drainage boards—six in England and three in Wales—Highways England, the trunk road agencies in Wales and the water and sewerage providers work together in the Severn river basin district to manage flood risk.

The River Severn is the longest river in the country and it is a shared river; many of its tributaries rise in Wales before flowing through the Marches and on towards the Bristol channel. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) mentioned, there is a growing recognition that upstream solutions, such as natural flood management schemes in the upper reaches, can be important tools in flood management. That was highlighted by the Secretary of State, who, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, recently visited the area following the flooding. The Secretary of State and I have reiterated the importance of nature-based solutions to better protect vulnerable communities up and down the Severn, and I know that the Welsh Government are working on implementing some of those ideas already, as we have been doing in parts of England for some time. We must continue to work together on this catchment approach.

Those solutions cannot, however, provide the complete answer; there must be an integrated range of measures. That brings me on to the River Severn partnership. I absolutely share the ambition of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to deliver a long-term, comprehensive and holistic approach; that has to be the right direction. The partnership was formed only recently, but I am glad to see that it includes Natural Resources Wales. As my hon. Friend clearly outlined, it is taking the right approach—not just to having too much water in times of floods, but to handling situations when we do not have enough water in times of drought and to providing businesses with opportunities.

People up and down the Severn had the foresight to set up the partnership before the recent flooding. A memorandum of understanding has been signed, and local investment has already been committed. It is a really forward-thinking project, and I am aware that investigations are continuing on the feasibility of a floodwater storage area around Shrewsbury, which I believe my hon. Friend mentioned to the Secretary of State. I had a discussion with him before coming to the debate, and he wanted me to say how impressed he was by what he was shown. We would both like to be kept informed about how it is going, because that holistic approach is key.

I hear the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) for an MPs’ consortium—including MPs along the tributaries, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) mentioned—and we wait to hear more on that. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that significant investment has already been poured into the area, to the tune of £12.8 million for defences in Worcestershire, and there are other significant schemes up and down the river. Since 2010, the Government have invested £3.5 million on flood defences further upstream in Shropshire. All those defences better protect more homes.

As has been mentioned, flooding is not a new phenomenon. With climate change, we have to expect more frequent extreme weather events, and that is why we are investing record amounts in flood defences to protect our communities along rivers such as the Severn and the Wye. I hope that Members will welcome the Chancellor’s announcement today of a huge boost to flooding funding, to the tune of £5.2 billion, in the flood and coastal erosion management package. That underlines the Government’s commitment to this area. Within that, there is a £200 million package over six years for a place-based resilience programme, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) mentioned. That will support more than 25 local areas—urban, rural and coastal—from the north to the midlands to the south, with each taking innovative actions to improve flood resilience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham did not mention building on flood plains, but I know it is something that many people are talking about. The Secretary of State and I will speak to the Housing Secretary about the whole policy of building in flood areas and perhaps place renewed emphasis on how that should be looked at. I want to link the whole area of water consumption and supply with flood resilience. That is very important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned—he raises his large pipe programme in every possible debate.

I hope my response makes it clear that there is a great deal of commitment from the Government, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for being such a champion of his area. I look forward to hearing more about the great plans for the River Severn.

Question put and agreed to.